Kindred Spirits -- Joe I. and Pablo
Kindred Spirit (noun)
1. A person whose interests or attitudes are similar to one’s own.
2. (plural) Two or more people that make a special connection by means of an experience that has drawn them together on a higher level of consciousness.
Joe I. Vigil found a kindred spirit in Charley ‘Pablo’ Vigil.
It was November, 1970, and Joe I., the 40-year-old coach at Adams State College in Alamosa, wanted to meet the kid from Moffat County High School who had just won the Colorado class 2A state cross country championship.
Two weeks earlier, Coach Vigil sent Pablo a letter of congratulations for his first – and only – state win, and said he would like the privilege of helping the young man develop his talent over the next four years.
“I thought, ‘Are you serious?’” Pablo recalls. “Coach Vigil wants to work with…me!?”
Just as Joe had grown up in relative poverty, with a single mother who worked tirelessly to put food on the family’s table, Pablo lived all of his growing years in menial conditions.
“In our home,” Pablo recalls, “we had to take a bath in an old tin tub, and heat the water and the house with wood. We couldn’t afford anything else.”
Pablo’s childhood was initially formed in the mountainous regions of northern New Mexico, where the trappings of poverty were evident everywhere.
“We were poor, and both of my parents and grandparents were illiterate,” Pablo said. “I knew my father only a little bit. My grandparents – my dad’s parents – were farmers from the Mora Valley in New Mexico. They were good, hard working people but they never really had any opportunities to go to school. It was a different world, growing up in Mora in the 1950s. Then in the early 1960s, I must have been 10 or so, we left Mora to move to Craig, Colorado. Dad was still kind of with the family off and on, and he was herding sheep in Craig. The only kind of job he could get was working on ranches.
“We went up there to be with him, and then not long after we went up there, he took off again. We were stuck in Craig. But the thing about Craig was they had better schools, they had Little League programs in baseball, and sports programs for kids in the summertime.”
Pablo continued: “My three brothers and I had paper routes. Everybody did whatever we could to make ends meet. We were living across town in this old wooden house with no plumbing, no running water, and an outhouse in the back.”
His mother -- Aurora Lucero Vigil – was hard-nosed, he said. “She had to be. She had an incredibly strong work ethic and she really instilled that work ethic in us. We were all doing gardening jobs, collecting aluminum cans and beer bottles and recycling them. Back in the day, you could recycle a Coors bottle for a penny. That all helped. In the winter time we’d go to the other side of town where the rich people lived and after we’d deliver newspapers we’d shovel sidewalks before we’d go to school.”
Coach Vigil’s first meeting with Pablo is discussed in greater detail in the book, Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil, available from Soulstice Publishing of Flagstaff, Arizona (www.soulsticepublishing.com).
Pablo Vigil is a central figure in the book, which is a biography of his Coach and good friend.
“Well, growing up, I had a lot of problems as a kid: social problems, learning problems, academic problems. I was just a big frickin’ mess. When I first met Coach Vigil, I was in high school. He’s very gregarious, very assertive, very out-spoken. He was kind of scary, you know. This scary guy…he’s kind of intimidating. He is so energized, like a giant Energizer bunny. I was like, ‘What the hell…kind of like, gulp.’ It was like David looking up at Goliath.
“I was just not used to people like that, you know, because thinking back to my dad, he was kind of the opposite. My dad also was a big, intimidating man, but kind of violent and hostile.”
“Meeting Coach Vigil the first time was too much for me to handle. It was too much information all the way around. His charisma, he was highly-educated, highly energized…he was like trying to get near a lightning bolt. And when you’re not that, and you lack confidence, you lack self-esteem, you lack a lot of things, and when you come from a dirt poor, dysfunctional family with a lot of hang-ups and a lot of issues, it’s not easy to synchronize into that and become a piece of that.”
“But eventually I did. In fact, now as an adult, I have a better relationship with Coach Vigil than I did back then. Because back then I was over-awed of this Godly figure. I see him from a different perspective now.
“I think when you are around people like that who are very confident, very assertive, very positive, if you’re not used to that, you can certainly come up with some mixed emotions, mixed diagnoses of these kind of people.”
With a college coach in his house, yearning for his commitment, Pablo admits he had trepidation.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do academically. It was crazy times. There was Vietnam. You’ve got the tail end of the hippie era. All of the drugs, LSD, pot and everything is converging, you know. And there you are in the 1960s in the hicksville town of Craig, and you didn’t know what was going on. I never really considered going to college or getting a college education or running in college.
“But after my brother (Roger, who was an All American wrestler at Adams State and later the head coach for wrestling at Alamosa High School) went to college, he was like a father figure to us, and it seemed like it was something I could do.”
Once he committed to running for Vigil, Pablo said “Adams State became more than just a place for me to get an education. It was like my home away from home. And I knew I couldn’t really screw up because I couldn’t go back to Craig.”
From 1971 to 1975, Pablo Vigil earned four NAIA All American honors running for Adams State College. He made the U.S. team for the world cross country championships in 1978 – which placed second, the highest ever finish for the U.S. squad in the world championships – and from 1979 to 1982, won the world’s greatest mountain race in Sierre Zinal, Switzerland a record four consecutive times.
In other posts to this blog, I’m going to talk more about Pablo’s rise to the pinnacle of mountain running, a sport in which he’s still celebrated today. I’m also planning to take a deeper dive into the term “Vigilosophy,” which Pablo originally was kicking around to describe his own path in life, then had an idea one day that it was better suited for his mentor, Coach Joe I. Vigil.
For Pablo, his life forever changed 49 years ago by a simple letter from Joe I. Vigil, a man whose upbringing was all too similar to his own.
“I pull that letter out all the time and I look at it,” Pablo said. “I carry it with me as I travel around the world. I look at it and I kind of see the camera fast forward: Where I was at then, what has transpired. The victories, the downfalls. The running well and the not running well. The winning, not winning. My marriage, my divorce. This, that and whatever…and I say, ‘you know what, I am so blessed.’ I am such a blessed person. So if I have a chance to help somebody – I don’t care where it is, Mexico, Nepal, the U.S. – and I get a chance to help somebody, I’m going to help them.”
“That, to me,” Pablo said, “is what Vigilosophy is all about.”
Kindred Spirits? Pablo Vigil (left) with Coach Joe I. Vigil